by Marc Owen Jones
When travelling you often spend a lot of time talking to taxi drivers. This can often offer an interesting insight into a person’s beliefs or country’s politics. The same is true in Bahrain, and the following story is taken from a taxi ride that happened about 5 years ago. If it weren’t for the fact that this was entirely true, it would seem contrived. I wrote it up immediately after I got home (5 years ago), so some of the stylistic aspects may seem a little pretentious or ambitious. There are many reasons I like this story, not least because it deals with the theme of identity and belonging, especially that felt by many expatriates who have grown up in Bahrain. It was also one of the first times I remember being made to feel guilty about my family’s presence in Bahrain.
A discerning eye would undoubtedly note the six conspicuous revelers, wet and beer-weary, halfheartedly seeking shelter beneath a bemused and experienced palm. Muttering among themselves, their discontent is imitated by the augmentation in Mesopotamian bluster.
Two more persons pick their way across a sandy reservation, being extra diligent so as to avoid large puddles swelling with warm rain. The six uncomfortable creatures soon become eight.
“Shall we order a taxi?” inquired one of them.
“Yes we shall!” declares one of the others, his assertiveness no doubt brought on by one too many bullfrogs (a luminous blue cocktail).
Dialling ensues, followed by a brief exchange of required information; location, time, amount of taxis required etc. Silence and whispered condemnation of the weather follow. No sign of the taxis though.
“Well this is ridiculous, why don’t we just get one of the public taxis, save us standing here in the rain?” declared a boy wearing a muscle fit t-shirt that was perhaps a little too tight on him.
“They always end up costing more!” said bullfrog
“Not necessarily – anyone else want to get a public taxi?” responded muscle fit.
Three of the group moved reluctantly forward.
“Well why don’t you four get a public taxi then, and we’ll wait for the ones we ordered” retorted bullfrog, who was now crouched expectantly by a large puddle.
And so the group split in two, with one half deciding to endure the weather in the hope of a cheaper fare, while the other half heaped derision on the old idiom of patience being a virtue. After all, what difference are a few Dinars?
Let us focus on the four who decided to take the public taxi.
The Bahraini driver, a young and unshaven man, was not entirely delighted with the prospect of driving to two separate locations at three o’ clock in the morning. Indeed, he took great pleasure in reminding his passengers of this fact, and punctuated the journey with frequent yawns and gesticulations of impending slumber. Three of the four passengers, all of whom were sitting in the backseat, were unperturbed by the driver’s unashamed declarations of fatigue. This indifference was probably related to their intoxication, as well as the peace of mind afforded by something they had which muscle fit lacked – a working seatbelt. Such an absence was obviously worrying, especially when one considers the sodden highway and the driver’s fascination with an appalling crash that had occurred on the other side of the road.
A quarter of an hour passes, and the three passengers in the backseat are dropped off in the area of Saar. One passenger remains, the green shirted one, who happens to live another fifteen minutes away in a small compound in the south of Bahrain. Clearly, he would not be anticipating the next fifteen minutes with any eagerness, for it was only him and the disgruntled driver remaining.
“How are you?” asked the passenger.
“OK I guess. I have to get home. I must speak to my friend on the internet about some business I have…” replies the taxi driver portentously.
“Not that it concerns me, but what are you talking to this friend about? How did you guys meet?”
“Erm, the Internet…”
“In a chat room” interjects the passenger.
“Yes, in a chat room. His Arabic is good. I met him in an Arabic chat room. He lives in Britain. We need to discuss things…”
“Private things. Secret things…”
“Bad things?” inquires the passenger worryingly.
What secret things could the taxi driver mean? Why would he draw attention to this conversation and then refuse to divulge its intricacies?
“Maybe…Let me ask you something. You must give me an honest answer. Answer me honestly. OK?
“I will try…”
“Why are you in my taxi?”
“Excuse me?” says the passenger worried.
What an odd question he must be thinking. Surely even the least astute taxi driver realises that the purpose of their job is to take a customer from A to B. Such a query must surely be rhetorical. If not, then the taxi driver must be more disagreeable than originally implied.
“Why did you take my taxi, and not order a cab from ‘Speedy Motors’, when surely it is cheaper for you” reiterated the agitated driver.
After much hesitation, the passenger replies: “I will tell you why, companies like Speedy Motors generally employs expatriate workers from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to drive their taxis. They earn a pittance, and the majority of the money that they take in goes to their boss, just one man. If I ride your cab, more of the earnings go to you, instead of to just one man. Expatriate workers from the subcontinent are exploited. Employers here know that they can pay them next to nothing so that they themselves become wealthier.”
“I know this” replies the driver, “But you are a student. You must save money?”
“Yes, but I suppose there is a principle involved. Sometimes I can afford to be principled” – half joked the passenger.
“Ok, but you are an expatriate. Why do you care about what happens in Bahrain? You are English. Your family is from the UK, they take jobs from Bahrainis too.”
“That is true yes. But I wouldn’t say I’m English. I speak English. I spent my childhood in Saudi and Bahrain. My earliest memory is of me standing in the red sea, trying to pick up sea weed. The first sunset I remember was a Bahraini sunset. My passport says I am a British citizen, and you tell me I am a British citizen. I am who I choose to be. My heart is in Bahrain”
“But your family is British!” cries the driver.
“So they are, but I speak for myself. Bahrain is my home. I choose to be from here. I am ashamed of many things my country has done. Just because my passport dictates that I cannot stay in Bahrain, it doesn’t mean I belong in Britain”
“Ok, so you are ashamed of your country, but you are still English, you are not Arabic”
“Tell me then, are you Bahraini, or are you Arabic?”
“Maybe I am both” says the taxi driver.
“Yes, maybe you are. Maybe I am Bahraini, but not Arabic?” says the passenger.
Again, there is silence. The journey is coming to an end, the security at the town gates wave the car through, but only after seeing the white guy in the front seat. No wonder the taxi driver feels resentment.
“Do you like football?” asks the taxi driver.
“I love football” replies the passenger. “What position do you play?”
“Defence. On the right.”
“Ahh, right back”
“Yes, right back. I play right back. I love football. Are you any good?” asks the driver
“Well, it’s not very humble of me, but I think I am yes” declares the passenger.
“Would you like to come and play with my friends and I one day?” asks the driver.
“I would love to” replies the passenger.
“Well give me your number and we can play next week”
The point of departure is then reached. It is half past three in the morning. The fare is paid.
“My name is Ali” says the taxi driver.
“My name is Marc. It was nice to meet you”
(I should add here that many people prefer to use radio meter taxis such as Speedy Motors in Bahrain. This is often because getting public taxis can be more expensive and involve haggling, arguing over ‘broken meters’ etc. In short, people can often be ripped off. Or often people also get to know a specific taxi driver who they then call for a guaranteed reasonable fare – though sometimes they are busy)